Exclusive Interview With Dan Scalon-Bringing “Onward” To Life
For Dan Scanlon, bringing the upcoming Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” to the big screen was not just a labor of love but more importantly, a way to share his very personal story of moving onward through his own personal journey through his own life. I had the opportunity to head to Pixar Studios in Northern California to screen this beautiful, emotional tale about family, and the bond of two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in the world. I got to sit down for an exclusive one on one interview with director Dan Scanlon who is the driving force behind bringing “Onward” to life. Inspired by Scanlon’s own experience of longing to connect with his own dad, who died when he was just a year old, it is in every sense, every person’s story, that uses magic as a metaphor for what could have been and what will be and one that every person can relate to. For me, “Onward” was the tale I never knew I needed in my life, but one that helped me to come to terms with the losses in my life and yes, give myself permission to finally move on.
So why was now the right time to finally bring “Onward” to life?
“I think that’s why it’s great to tell these types of stories. It’s important to tell stories that I think are if not personal, at the very least come from an honest place because chances are you’re going to run into folks who had those experiences or something like it. The movie is based in my own questions that I’ve had all of my life starting with the most basic ones- who is my father and how am I like him? It’s so important to ask questions about your life, who you are, how did it shape me?”
Just how personal of a journey was this for you?
“This is a really personal film for me. When I was a year old my father passed away — and my brother was three. We had no memory of him. there wasn’t anything we could remember of my father by because we were so young — until a relative sent us an audio recording with his voice which had my father saying “hi” and “goodbye”. It wasn’t much, but for me, it was more than enough. To us, it was magical, It was amazing to hear his voice. Sometimes we think we know our family and we know people ask questions to get to know them. You’ll be surprised. You know, I think all of these things are themes that came out of my personal experience. What losing my dad when I was young and my brother not growing up with him at all, and wondering why he was so and how different the life I lived could have been so vastly different. While it is the only life I know, we all always wonder. It’s one of the most important things and reasons for doing this and something I knew I had to do. Six years in the making, this was a way to share his story, a way to find out more about and pay tribute to my father.”
As an educator, I was curious if there was a teacher that inspired you or possibly changed your life along the way?
“Teachers, especially a few, in particular, were something that you could grab onto during these times and keep moving forward and show you things that you never knew about your own self and at times became a family to me. I think it is important to recognize the teachers who encouraged me and every student and how important that is. It is such an important thing in life and that encouragement of others gives meaning to growing up.”
“In Michigan, you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of opportunities to learn about the film but there really is. There was a small film group called Detroit Area Film and Television. At the time they had all this wonderful equipment and students could go there and I learned a lot from them. It’s a lot of right place, right time, and taking advantage of the circumstance. This is my outlet. This is where I’m going in life.”
I was curious, knowing that Pixar stories more often than not, tend to evolve and change when bringing a movie to life, how much “Onward” changed over the course of the making of the film?
“The story and movie changed a lot from its inception to what you just saw. I think one example is for the longest time we had the youngest brother end as the one who is into magic and wanted to be a wizard and then his older brother was a little but it just didn’t work. There weren’t a lot of conflicts and when they went on the journey the younger brother Ian knew everything about magic already. And so even as an audience member you were catching up to him. It’s always a good idea if the audience can be sitting in the shoes of the main character. So once we switched it to make the older brother the one who loves magic and the other, the younger brother, who’s the one who just wants to be a normal kid and doesn’t want to. Once we changed the roles, suddenly when they went on the adventure the big brother is teaching Ian and you at the same time how this world works and that was a change that really helped us get that protective nature you were talking about.”
He then went on to expand upon the relationship between the two brothers…
“For Barley and Ian, there was just a wonderful relationship, even though he was embarrassed by it still, the love was palpable.I know a lot of siblings fight like crazy and have conflict but I do think a lot of times it’s more complicated than that. There is still love and in there and I’m certainly with my brother we got along really well and luckily we’ve always gotten along really well. I just wanted to find a balance between the fact that these two brothers are very different and caused conflict in how they’re different from each other, especially the big brother to little brother, but just to show that there was a still a place where this one of a kind love allows them to come together in general because of that undeniable bond that is formed between brothers or any siblings.”
“They still loved one another despite the differences and they could still meet in the same place. Barley is well-intentioned and wants to be supportive. But he does everything wrong and it makes things hard for Ian. He tries to do the right thing but ultimately unintentionally what he is really doing is making life harder for Ian, but that’s what life is, it is more nuanced in that way.”
I was curious as to whether or not you had envisioned certain voice actors to bring the roles to life?
” We try to find actors who embody those or at least get close to embodying those personality traits that we want our characters to use in order to bring them to life. After that, we work with those actors to bring out and develop those specific traits. But a lot of times we will look at the character and listen and we will have. The Casting Department play-act, different actors, for us long before we know who they are. The story comes first and then we move on from there as to who can bring that story to life in a very real way.”
In every Pixar film, the score and music of the films almost become another character in the story and with “Onward” this is especially true throughout the movie. From the opening, almost foreboding music to the whimsical yet emotional underscore heard throughout, how did the decision of what music to use come to be?
“One of the reasons we wanted Mychael and Jeff Danna who did the score for “The Good Dinosaur” was because everything they do has deep emotion in it and they do huge adventure quest type music and it the fact that they were brothers was a happy coincidence as well. Combine that with some of the best pop tunes from the decades such as “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, “Magic” from the Cars, “Freedom” by George Michael with a sprinkling of Disney and Pixar classics there is truly something for everyone.”
Knowing that the characters in “Onward” are so personal to you I’m curious to find out if you could be any character from any Disney Pixar movie, who would you choose?
“Wow! Great question. I truly think that I might like to be Helen Parr or even Bob Parr from “The Incredibles” because first, they are superheroes of course, and who doesn’t want to be a superhero but more importantly, it would be so fun to be a superhero to your kids. Who wouldn’t want to be Helen or Bob?”
Knowing the history behind “Onward” the one thing I really wanted to know was the one question I was positive Dan had been asked by everyone else and much to my surprise, and to his, no one had ever asked the one question that seemed to beg to be answered and that was to find out that if Dan could bring back his own father for a day, what would it be?
“I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that and you’re right, it seems like the logical question to ask. I really think it would just be a regular like let’s go to the park instead of a birthday party or a red carpet event-those would not be what I would want to share. I would love to be able to sit down and share with him a regular day. I just want to talk especially now that I’m older because me sitting with him as a 16-year-old me vs a 43-year-old me would be totally different. It still would be about the same thing which is to know if he was proud of me. I think that that’s important to tell him about my life. I would want to tell him about my mom and all the wonderful way she raised us and let him know just how happy we were growing up and tell him about my brother and me. I think there’d be a lot of telling him about the life I had and the people that were there to support me in it and then we grew up wanting them to be proud of who we are and who we grew up to be. I think that’s why in the letter that is left for the brothers with the spell it says ‘I want to see who my boys grow up to be.’ He’s not putting a judgment on that. He’s just saying I want to see who they grow up to be. He’s not saying good or bad but it’s implied that they want to show him that they turned out ok and above all, they hope that they made him proud. I think those are the moments I missed the most, just the regular everyday things and talks. “
What is the one thing you hope that people will walk away with after seeing “Onward”?
” I would say going into the movie, number one that they know that despite its heavy topic at times, It is a lot of fun, it’s an adventurous movie with lots of laughs. It’s the bond of two brothers, of family, and the quest to discover who we are and although I won’t spoil the ending, the ending is what I hope everyone will come away with, to know that it’s a love letter to the magic that legacy holds in each of our lives that keeps us moving onward in life. But as for what I hope that people will take away from the movie, they will just have to discover that for themselves. It is the story of all the people that helped to make it and the story of all the people that watch it.”
Grab the family, grab the tissues, and get ready for Disney Pixar’s “Onward” and hold on as you embark on the adventure a lifetime in the making.
“Long ago the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and full of magic. And that magic helped all in need.”
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